Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Miracle and Mystery of the Immune System

With the flu season raging, and my wife and many friends coming down with this nasty bug, I often think about the immune system and how it works. The immune system is one of the great mysteries and miracles of the human body, as I learned when I went on a cancer journey with my wife Kathleen of blessed memory. At that time, I read a little pamphlet which explained that the immune system consists of two types of cells: memory T-cells and killer T-cells. When an infection enters the body, these cells go to the infection and the killer T-cells do what they can to destroy it. In the process many of these courageous killer T-cell sacrifice their lives to preserve the health of the body. The memory t-cells observe what the killer t-cells do, evaluate what works best, and remember the best practices. Later, when a similar infection occurs, these clever little memory t-cells communicate this information to the killer t-cells. That’s how vaccines work: they provide memory and killer t-cells an opportunity to fight a weakened form of the infection so that they can be more effective when they encounter the more virulent form.
This is obviously a simplified and “anthropomorphized” explanation of what happens at a cellular level. Yet the question still remains: How can a single cell observe, evaluate, remember and communicate since it doesn’t have a nervous system or the usual means of communication? Isn’t is astonishing that a cell can accomplish these high level mental tasks using chemical processes and signals! This uncanny ability seems to me miraculous and mysterious. How do single cells do this without consciousness or a brain? How is it that cells come together and cooperate in this complex way?
I once asked these questions to a young man who does research in immunology and he replied confidently, “It’s all mechanical.”
The answer didn’t make sense to me, so I said. “When you say it’s mechanical, you imply that the cell is some kind of machine, right?”
“Yeah,” he said, a little less confidently. “That’s right.”
“So who built and programmed the machine?” I asked.
He didn’t have an answer. That’s obviously not a question that is asked in science departments.
I am not suggesting that cells or any living organisms are machines. Quite the opposite. I agree with the Quaker theologian and physicist Howard Brinton that machines and living organisms are fundamentally different. Machines are built and programmed by an outside entity. Living organisms are self-organizing and have something mysterious we call intention or will that direct them towards the future.
Using theological terms, we might call this mysterious organizing force within each living organism the Logos.
The Gospel of John says that “in the beginning was the Logos” and the Logos created everything and nothing that was created was created without the Logos. That’s a bold statement with far-reaching implications.
It means that the Logos is present not only in human beings, but also (though in a lesser degree) in all matter, both animate and inanimate.
Howard Brinton explained how this is possible through a concept known as “holism,” which was developed in the 1920s by Jan Smuts. The theory of holism postulates that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that life emerges and develops through a holistic process. As cells come together and cooperate, they are able to function more effectively until finally they evolve into bodies and then into communities. These communities also function holistically, with the collective accomplishing far more than any individual could do. Thinkers ranging from Alfred North Whitehead to Teilhard de Chardin were influenced by the concept of holism.
Think of your body as a community of cells that are living together holistically. Most of them are non-human, yet they contribute to the good of the body (unless something happens to disrupt the balance, in which case one group of organisms may overpopulate and cause damage to the organism as a whole). Scientists have demonstrated how non-human cells in our body contribute to our health. (See  This may seem surprising until you consider how much non-citizens contribute to the economic and social health of our country!
Not all cells are beneficial, of course. Some, like viruses and cancer cells, are destructive. What makes them destructive is that they do not cooperate for the good of the body, but rather focus only on their own survival. These selfish and ultimately self-destructive cells behave like the “rugged individualists” that Ayn Rand and others extol.
In a poetic passage from his Swarthmore Lecture “Creative Worship” (1933), Howard Brinton evokes a cosmology that links modern science with the gospel of John through what he calls “the Spirit of Cooperation”:
In the beginning there was a swarm of electric particles, the most primitive forms of matter, pushing and pulling on each other from without. The Power which unites uttered the creative Fiat and these participles cooperated with one another to form organisms called atoms. The atoms jostled and fought each other until again the Spirit of Cooperation entered and they combined to create molecules. The molecules were mechanically and externally related and Creative Harmonizing Love fused them into fellowships as living cells which exhibited an unprecedented kind of behaviour. In a similar way cells, by forming new kinds of relation with one another, gradually achieved great societies such as animal bodies and eventually the infinitely elaborate structure of a human brain.[1]

This beautiful passage reminds us that God’s creation is an ongoing, cooperative process. Through the Logos God is continuing to evolve not only new forms of biological life, but also new forms of human awareness and communities. Through the power of the Logos, the living Christ, inanimate matter (dust) became cells (flesh), cells became the bodies of animals and animals joined together to form communities, and the highest form of community is the one that Christ called us to be part of. As we contemplate this amazing process of creation as Christians, it is comforting to know that Christ is at work not only in our communal life, but in every cell of our body, evolving new strategies to counteract illness, and to heal our bodies (and our souls).
This healing, redemptive process happens whether we will it or not (just as Christ’s grace permeates creation), but we can choose either to cooperate in or resist this healing work. Through our faith, and through paying attention to what our body and soul is trying to tell us, we can strengthen our immune system, heal our souls, and cultivate wholeness/wellness. This is good news!
The spirit of Christ is within us, as Jesus explains: “I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).    
When we focus on the Inward Christ, we may not always experience physical healing. Sometimes what is healed is the soul. During her cancer journey, Kathleen focused on both physical and spiritual healing--conventional and complementary medicine. Sadly, she did not survive her stem cell transplant at the City of Hope but she left behind a beautiful legacy and a model of how a Christian faces life-threatening illness with love and patience and good will towards all. She wanted us to remember her with the apostle Paul's powerful words of affirmation:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8: 38-39 (NIV)

A Healing Contemplation

When you are feeling sick, remember that you are part of Christ, and Christ is within you. Your body is a spiritual as well as physical entity: each of your cells has been created through the loving Spirit of Cooperation, the Logos. Breathe in and breathe out slowly, as if you are breathing in the holy spirit. Feel the presence of this healing spirit from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. Remember that Christ is present in your immune system, and in every other cell and fibre of your body. As Paul reminded us, “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God” (1 Corinthians 6:19) Rejoice and be glad in your body!  Its pain and suffering will not last forever. Just breathe and be fully present with what you are feeling. The more you try to resist pain, the stronger it becomes. The more you surrender to God, and open yourself to the Christ within, the stronger you and your immune system will become. Trust in the healing power that comes from God and is leading you back to your source and destination. This is the miracle and mystery that was present in the beginning, and lives within you in this  moment.



[1] Creative Worship and Other Essays. Pendle Hill Publications: Wallingford, PA, 1957, p. 34.


  1. Multe bene, Amice Antonie. Holistics [which, you should also mention, deals with context as an essential element of the whole] and Systems Theory are essential to understanding how groups and bodies deal with internal and external threats. Can one consider something a threat and deal with it in Love? That's the Gandhian and Quaker challenge.
    . Nayler said, 'As it holds no malice in itself, it conceives of none in any other.' We must have some kind of memory of threat in order to be connected with those we (feel) threatened by. The Talmud, of course, has some good things to say about this. I hope you provoke a lot of dialog.

  2. Forgot to mention that part of the Jewish teaching that distinguishes it from much Christian commentary is:
    We refer to the Holy One as the Creator, from Latin, based on the perfect (passive) participle creatus. We think it means S/He has created this world (finished). But in Hebrew, ha-Shem is called Bore et ha-kol = the one who is Creating all, based on the form bore-, the imperfect active participle of B-R--, to bring something into existence [not just make something out of parts]. Notice how your perspective changes when you think God is your Creating One, constantly making and remaking you and all that is, flowing creatively through you as a stream of Living Water.